My thanks to Royal Observatory Public Astronomer Marek Kukula, who is holding Double the Stars in front of the remains of the 40-foot reflector, one of many Herschel ephemera on display at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. We’ll launch the book there at 2pm on Sunday 28th September – save the date!
Also, my thanks to a sister alumnae at Randolph(-Macon Woman’s) College, who sent me a photograph of a poem about Caroline Herschel that she saw on display at Riverviews Artspace in Virginia. It’s interesting to see Caroline’s story from such a different angle – I’m used to thinking of Caroline as rather cynical and down-to-earth, and this is an ephemeral poem, but I particularly enjoy Long’s use of light.
It’s inevitable that, by having so many different projects going on, one will simmer on the back burner for a long time while I focus on others. This has happened with my historical novel, Double the Stars, which is in a fourth draft, and under consideration by three parties – but, having had a bit of time to learn the world of agents and publishers – may not get beyond that stage in this round (though I hope, of course, that it does). However, life is breathed into the project thanks to Cassie Herschel-Shorland.
Cassie and I met because I co-planned/hosted a ‘Herschel Evening’ at the Whipple Museum in 2010, where I read far too much of a far too early draft of the novel (a good learning experience; a long-suffering audience of about 50 people)! Cassie wasn’t at the Herschel Evening, but her father, John Herschel, and her brother, William, and sister, Amanda, were. They are a delightful family: generous and enthusiastic; all one could want in a subject of research – and in a neighbour.
It turned out that Cassie lived only a short walk down the road from me in the Greenwich area of London. She opened her doors to me and shared a great deal of material for which she’s responsible – mostly, textiles, including a dress that used to belong to Caroline Herschel, the heroine of my novel and Cassie’s great (great great) Aunt.
Along with being a Museum Access & Design Consultant, with a fine knowledge of conservation, preservation, and reconstruction, Cassie is completing an MA. Because of our growing friendship and her generosity in sharing her family (and family history) with me (a trip to visit her parents and see many Herschel objects first-hand, and a day trip to Bath with her and her father being some of the highlights,) Cassie was inspired to use Caroline Herschel as the subject for her MA Thesis – to work up an historical reconstruction, an image that is as accurate as it can be, of what Caroline might have looked like around the age at which she appears in my novel. It would be ideal, we agreed, if this could be incorporated into the novel.
As an artist and painter, Cassie has also talked with me about my modelling, and she asked me some time ago if I’d be interested in sitting in period dress. I hadn’t made the connection that she was interested in having me ‘sit’ as Caroline! This past Saturday, I did sit as Cassie made some preliminary sketches. We both know I’m not the right ‘model’ for Caroline, who was absolutely tiny, not curvy at all, and in fact, slightly disfigured by smallpox and typhus. But it’s good exercise for Cassie to think of poses: seated, holding a teacup, holding a book, holding nothing? Turned towards the window, turned towards the viewer?
We also got to go through a treasure-box of miscellaneous items from one of Cassie’s ancestors (also, I think, a great-aunt,) which was full of bobbins, thread, bits and pieces; tiny sketch-books half-full of intricate drawings, gorgeous fluid handwriting copying extracts of poetry, calling-card cases and crumbling fans made of ivory.
By far my favourite object was a tiny paper globe with two pull-tabs (which Cassie gingerly moved around) – the globe lifts the lid and there are a few layers underneath. The writing is in German, so I’ll have to nudge one friend or another to translate (Meghan!) but I was tickled, because it is precisely the kind of thing we’ve got at the Whipple Museum, and this is precisely where the Whipple obtains wonderful objects like this. Cassie’s partner David discerned ‘the heavens and Earth’ from part of the script, and it is definitely a paper orrery of some kind.
So, the Herschel project continues, but it’s become a part of life, of friendship, of discovery, and I’m so grateful. I would, of course, like Double the Stars to be published eventually, but it’s got to find the right home, and the right set of circumstances, to support this evolving endeavour. It isn’t just a book, and whatever book comes of it must be sensitive to that.
A series of fortunate events have lately occurred, re-directing attention to my historical fiction manuscript, Double the Stars: The Life and Adventures of Miss Caroline Herschel.
My friend Cassie Herschel-Shorland, an artist and museum access/design consultant, whom I had the good fortune to meet via my research on the Herschel family and who lives about ten minutes away from me in our nook of South East London, invited me to join her on a day trip to Bath. She was meeting her father, John Herschel, to go see the new Caroline Lucretia Gallery in the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, to attend the AGM of the William Herschel Society, and to hear the evening lecture of that society. Would I like to join them?
On Saturday 24 March, Cassie and I took the train from Paddington. On the journey, we had time to talk about our respective projects on Caroline Herschel. I’ve been thinking about how I want to treat Caroline as a character: there is a tension arising between wanting to ‘air-brush’ her so the book will be made into a film starring Emma Watson as Caroline and Paul Bettany as William (with of course Keira Knightley cameo-ing as the Duchess of Devonshire – hell, while we’re at it, let’s have Helen Mirren as Queen Charlotte & Nigel Hawthorne as King George III), versus wanting to stay true to the person I’ve become familiar with through my research into her life, her history, her memoirs, her family, and the places she lived. That is, a tension between trying to write a book that may sell well versus writing a book that may be a smaller, quieter, (ideally) literary success.
Cassie, meanwhile, is in the final year of an MA on Archaeological Illustration, with a large part of that being historical reconstruction, and has decided to do her final project on reconstructing an image of Caroline. She is thinking about whether it should be a straightforward portrait without much else in the picture, or whether it might be a more Victorian-inspired compendium of objects, with their own meanings and stories, creating a setting in which to place Caroline. Casssie is in charge of the only dress left of Caroline’s, which is presently on loan to the Herschel Museum in Bath, and is considering how she will incorporate the style of the garment into the image.
We are each, in our ways, ‘Constructing Caroline,’ and I’m interested in the process as well as the outcome. I’m delighted that I proposed the idea over a year ago to Cassie of thinking about interpreting her own artistic image of Caroline at the time my novel focuses on (mostly around 1782) so I might use the illustration in Double the Stars. This settled in the back of Cassie’s mind and resurfaced when she began to make decisions about her MA. With that project comes a slew of requirements which will make her work more deeply layered, because historically reconstructing a picture of a person relies on evidence without the freedom of invention which I have in my book. Nonetheless, because of the research I have done, Cassie has asked me to be one of three advisors on her project, and I’m honoured. A great deal of our discussion on the train included me referencing something in the novel, followed with an explanation of whether it was from research or invention. With the novel, decisions come down to plausibility – whether something could have happened, in light of that person’s personality, character, and circumstances. In historical reconstruction, it’s about whether something did happen, and whether there is evidence for it. If there’s not, Cassie explained, either that feature / characteristic / decision should be left out, or it must be made clear that it is an imaginative leap.
Cassie and I went to the Museum of Costume, now known as the Fashion Museum, to explore some of the older collections on display. The Museum has done a brilliant job of putting their archives ‘on display’ by creating glass-fronted, shopfront-looking sets with boxes piled high in the background and on the sides, explaining that visitors are actually standing in the archives and we may see curators going about their work inside these displays. However, there was a definite leap from the distinctive styles of the mid-1700s to what we’d be familiar with as the Jane Austen styles of the 1800s, and Caroline falls smack in the middle of this. When she arrived in Bath, she would have landed amidst Marie Antoinette / Duchess of Devonshire style wigs, panniers, whalebone stays (corsets) – the height of extravagant fashion. By the time she was working in Windsor as an astronomical assistant, styles would have relaxed to the nightgown-light, empire-waist, sprig-muslin, Jane Austen look. I’m not quite sure what happened in between. It isn’t as if there was a Darwinian diminishing of panniers and bustles into smaller and smaller humps until they disappeared. I think the fashions were set in Paris and swung from one extreme to another. The Duchess of Dev stepped out in her outrageously high wig, and everyone said, ‘Oo-er, hem-haw, oh go on then, we’ll do it too.’
I snapped some photos while Cassie took notes and made sketches, and then we were out into the sunshine, walking back to the station to meet her father. The present-day John Herschel is a smiling, sweet, generous man in his mid-seventies, who reminds me of my grandfather in a few ways: he’s bald on the crown of his head but has a feathery halo of white hair wrapping round, he walks with an energy that sometimes seems to carry him away (to the point where I’m waiting to either catch him or break a possible fall, though none of this, fortunately, happened,) and his eyes soften with a wonderful kindness when he looks at me. Cassie, John, and I went to the Green Park Brasserie for lunch. and John pulled out a handful of archive files to show us which he’d brought along for the AGM.
After lunch, we walked around the corner to the Herschel Museum. A friendly young man greeted us as we entered: ‘Welcome to the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, the home of William and Caroline Herschel, where William discovered the planet Uranus from this very garden…’
‘Yes,’ John said with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. ‘I’m John Herschel.’
The young man, still smiling, looked adequately surprised.
Then something happened which I found absolutely hilarious and utterly British – he asked all of us to pay the admission fee. In the sweetest possible way, mind you, and with an appropriately apologetic (also British,) ‘I’m so sorry but they’re real sticklers about this,’ air, but I still thought it was just amazing. (The fee is £5, by the way.) The reason I find this amazing is because it is an example of the slightly bumbling and sweet but still rather stingy nature of some institutions (and the rule-abiding nature of this young chap, which is admirable,) and the humble, unassuming nature of the Herschels for not being fussed about the situation. I usually don’t pull the ‘In America,’ card, but in America, I’d bet any family visiting a museum of their ancestors would be welcomed in for free, celebrated in some way, and there would definitely be the risk of that family feeling entitled to such a reception. To be fair, this poor bloke had no warning we were coming, and there are other people who work at the museum who do know John very well indeed, so I think it was all a matter of circumstance. But for heaven’s sake, I would have let them in for free if I’d been working there!
We toured the museum, familiar to all of us, and paid special attention to the new gallery, which takes up a beautifully converted corner of the garden, attached to the workshop where William once blew up the flagstones when molten metal spilled from a speculum mould. It is a small, smooth, simple space, half made of glass walls with neutral drapes to protect the changing display of astronomical art, both modern and historical. It was a stunningly sunny day, and the door was open, leading us out to the charming garden. It’s amazing to remember that the garden used to run all the way down to the river, which now has two more streets of houses and the Brasserie (which is in what used to be a glorious Victorian railway station) in between the much smaller garden and the river.
We all spent a few hours pottering about the museum. Cassie and I discussed the dress: its shape, display, size and give. How big was Caroline? Tiny. Even for her day. I have an old photo of me posing beside the dress from one of my earlier reconnaissance trips to the museum. It was especially interesting to contrast the dress with the ones we’d recently seen at the Costume Museum, because she really was tiny indeed. The dress looks like it would fit a girl of 12 or 13 nowadays, and there’s some evidence that she may have worn it around the age of 70! (Though elderly people can shrink…)
After the museum, we decamped for tea, discussing the new gallery. It’s a beautiful inside space; the outside is a little modern for my liking. I’ll be interested to see what sort of temporary exhibits they plan for the future. The current exhibit is a lovely handful of wood objects or ‘astronomical sculptures’ by Chris Williams from his ‘Furniture for Stargazers‘ collection, including a wooden orrery. Walking from the museum to a cafe, John paused to say how delightfully sparkly and astronomical my dress was – I was tickled; I’d purposely worn my dark blue dress with sparkles as it felt appropriate to our astronomically-inspired day – how cute that John noticed! ‘Well spotted!’ I replied (and the stargazing puns roll on…)
I wandered up to the Royal Crescent while Cassie and John went to the Herschel Society AGM. They invited me but assured me it was more worthwhile to attend the evening lecture. The green in front of the Crescent was littered with half-dressed uni students and their picnic paraphernalia. Just between the Circus and the Crescent is a fabulous little pedestrian street, Catharine Place, and I explored some shops, bought overpriced but deliciously scented soap, and fell in love with Bath Old Books, where I bought the delightful volume ‘Scientific Dialogues, Intended for the Instruction and Entertainment of Young People, in which the first principles of Natural and Experimental Philosophy are Fully Explained,’ published by the Rev J. Joyce in London in 1838. I opened the volume and it popped open to page 109. What did the top of the page read? ‘Of the Herschel Planet’. Later, when we’d sat down to a quick supper before the lecture, John and Cassie asked me to read a little (in the low light, with tiny print,) and I read an excerpt, of which I attach a photo.
Professor John Zarnecki spoke on the Huygens Mission to Titan, which was much more approachable and entertaining than it might have been – Zarnecki was an enthusiastic speaker and said things like, ‘I’m going to use a technical word now: ‘stuff,” and ‘the rainfall of gloop,’ and ‘we’d all drunk a lot of champagne and when the reporters demanded we come up with some results only a few hours into the mission, with only a few bits of data we hadn’t sorted out yet, we decided the surface was like creme brûlée…’ It was a lovely lecture, but it seemed that Cassie and I were the only ones who needed to catch a train back to London (more of the family had come for the evening including those who would ferry John home). So as soon as the lecture ended, mid-applause, we dashed out and ran to the station.
We made it onto the train with one minute to spare. After I’d mopped up my ‘glow’ from the run and downed a bottle of water (and finished gasping – all the while Cassie appeared entirely composed, and she’d run in heels, no less,) we spent the journey home talking about our projects, with a day’s worth of new inspiration.
I’m delighted to promote a poetry reading at The Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge, where I am writer-in-residence. The reading is at 3pm on Tuesday 26th July, free, and open to the public – please join us if you’re in the area! Phone ahead to book a (free) space: 012 2333 0906; ask for the Whipple Museum.
Some time ago, Lesley Saunders contacted me, sharing poems she’d written which were inspired by objects in the Whipple Museum. It was a fun surprise to realise we’d both been writing about Caroline Herschel – Lesley, through poems, and me, with my novel.
Lesley is an extremely talented, widely published poet. Her publications include The Dark Larder (Corridor Press, 1997); Christina the Astonishing, co-authored with Jane Draycott and illustrated by Peter Hay (Two Rivers Press, 1998); Her Leafy Eye, with images by Geoff Carr (Two Rivers Press, 2009); No Doves (Mulfran Press, 2010); and a pamphlet Some Languages Are Hard to Dream In, with images by Christopher Hedley-Dent (also Mulfran Press, 2010). She has won several awards, including joint first prize for a portfolio of poems in the 2008 Manchester Poetry Competition.
Much of Lesley’s recent work is inspired by specific places and associations: Her Leafy Eye was set in the 18th century landscaped gardens at Rousham in north Oxfordshire; and in 2009 Lesley was visiting scholar and poet-in-residence at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, creating a poetry project around the college gardens. Last year she had a residency at Acton Court, an atmospheric Tudor house and gardens near Bristol that was built for Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn; now she is working on a collection of poems with scientific and medical connotations, sparked off by a visit to the Whipple Museum last autumn.
If familiar with my work, you’ll see that Lesley and I are indeed kindred spirits! Her Whipple-inspired poems epitomize the inspiration which can be gained from science, revealing the art in the material.
Lesley and I will each read from new work and talk about just what scientific forms our muses take.
I have a full draft of Double the Stars: the Life and Adventures of Miss Caroline Herschel. The past months, since last autumn, I’ve been ‘working on’ the novel in the sense of letting it rest and brew, or simmer, in the back of my mind. Phrases and scenes will float up, and I’ll jot them down. I’m gearing up to revise this draft, and I’m not sure exactly when that’s going to happen, but I’m hoping to really sit down and thrash it out sometime in the next few months.
The reason I say ‘I’m hoping’ (because really, don’t I just have to do it?) is because I’ve been completely immersed in researching anatomical wax models for this poetry play, Venus Heart. The Wellcome Library will either stick a barcode on me or start charging rent. Happily, I was accepted as a Founding Member of Henry’s Club, so I have a place to go have tea when the dissected bodies all become too much.
Meanwhile, I’ve been writing poems and re-drafting for a chapbook, or pamphlet-length work, Atlantic. At present, I’m not sure if it will become a pamphlet, or if it will wait until it’s ready to be a full-length poetry collection. These are very personal poems about my father’s death, my grandparents ageing and dying, and ideas of family, and living abroad. It is themed around the Atlantic ocean, but not so strictly as the themes in Darwin’s Microscope, or of course the close-framed story and history in Venus Heart.
So while the novel simmers, the hand turns to poetry.
I’m delighted to announce that 3,000 copies of a free booklet which I wrote for the Royal Observatory Greenwich are now available from the ROG! ‘Women, Astronomy and Greenwich,’ published with a generous grant from The Royal Society, helps celebrate the 350th anniversary of the RS, and focuses on five female astronomers with connections to the Royal Observatory.
The contemporary astronomer Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is highlighted in the booklet. I was fortunate to meet Jocelyn at a discussion of her poetry anthology, ‘Dark Matter: Poems of Space,’ where Pippa Goldshmidt of the Genomics Forum and I were invited to read.
Another female astronomer in the booklet is Caroline Herschel: my historical novel-in-progress, Double the Stars, is about Caroline. I’ve discovered in my research that The Royal Observatory Greenwich has the remaining pieces of William Herschel’s (Caroline’s brother’s) largest telescope, the 40-foot, as well as telescope lenses made by Caroline’s brothers William and Alexander. The Science Museum has Caroline’s sweeper (very exciting!) and large specula made by William, and The Whipple Museum in Cambridge has one of five telescopes commissioned by King George III, which William built, but I believe was never paid in full for (such is the government…) The Herschel House in Bath, of course, has a great number of items belonging to the family.
What a pleasure to have these resources at my fingertips: and at present I’m attending a series of lectures in astronomy at the ROG on Tuesday evenings; this is giving me insight into some of the technical aspects of the Herschel’s work, and allowing me to empathize with the frustrations of not being able to view the sky on an overcast night!
Come Sunday I shall take the train to Bath for the INSAP VII conference: The Seventh international conference on the Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena, held this year in Bath, home to Caroline and William Herschel (as well as their younger brother Alexander): a conference of precisely 100 delegates who will convene at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution to share their work, ranging from art to academic studies – and a novel, of course! – all inspired by astronomy.
The opening reception will be held at the Herschel House, the home at New King Street where the Herschels used to live and work. The following week is packed with 20-minute talks and presentations, and I’m glad to be giving a reading from my manuscript on Monday so I can then relax and enjoy. I adore Bath! So, I shall give a reading from Double the Stars: The Life and Adventures of Miss Caroline Herschel. And I’m sure I’ll meet a great number of interesting and talented people, as well as see a few people I’ve met before in my astronomical adventurings, not least Michael Hoskin, leading Herschel scholar, and Peter Hingley, Librarian at the Royal Astronomical Society and the very person who told me about the conference.
The Herschel evening at the Whipple Museum was an enormous success, with over fifty guests in attendance. This included some of William and Caroline’s descendants: the current head of the Herschel household, John Herschel-Shorland, his son William, and his daughter Amanda. So, as Melanie keenly put it, our ‘Herschel Trio’ event had a ‘Herschel trio’ in the audience!
The renowned Herschel scholar, Michael Hoskin, started off the evening with an engaging overview of William and Caroline’s work, explaining why he finds William Herschel the most impressive astronomer, possibly ever, for making groundbreaking progress in all three traditional strands of astronomy–observational astronomy, instrument building (namely telescopes,) and theoretical astronomy.
An additional honour to having Professor Hoskin speak at the Whipple is his status as the first Director of the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, and he reminisced on teaching lectures in the very room we were sitting in, now the Museum’s main gallery. Professor Hoskin’s penultimate book on the Herschel family is due out in 2011.
Derek, who runs the Whipple’s Science of Musical Sound activities, introduced the musicians and spoke on William as a composer. The first piece played was composed by William at the age of only 21.
It was a very special treat for us all to hear the compositions played, which is very rare indeed. The Herschel family were especially pleased to hear the music, and the current William Herschel was very encouraging to hear about my work-in-progress, kindly saying that I’m ‘filling in the gaps with creativity.’ I am certainly trying to do so!
The fifty-strong audience then relaxed for an Oboe Concerto, drifting back to the days when socialites flocked to Bath’s Octagon Chapel, where William played and conducted, and Caroline sang. These were the days when King George’s madness began to run rampant, and little Jane Austen frolicked along the limestone cobbles of the city.
Next, I read excerpts from my novel-in-progress, Caroline. One scene has William and Caroline strolling with their friend towards the recently designed Crescent, one of the poshest areas of Bath, where they find some schoolchildren playing at making a ‘living orrery’ in a field. William tries to correct their orbits and meteoric routes, to no avail. Another scene has Caroline swept away in the overwhelmingly expensive social activities in London with the rich widow, Mrs. Celia Colebrook.
Two trio sonatas followed, and then guests had time to look at some of the museum collections in the main gallery, speak with the participants, and leave their comments and compliments regarding the evening.
Thank you to Derek and Melanie for arranging such an excellent event, and to Melanie for being our photographer!